TV Review: The Fear Index

The Fear Index suffers from a difficult to resolve problem, namely: how do you make a show about arrogant, super rich people and it be in any way relatable to the audience?

Robert Harris is one of my favourite novelists of all time. Most of his works have been adapted for the big or small screen and continue to be – most recently Netflix’s Munich: The Edge of War (suffix added to distinguish it from the Steven Spielberg thriller, most likely). Yet I’m hard pressed to remember an adaptation of his work that matched the compressed thrills inherent in the way Harris tells his stories. Many of the screen versions of his books are austere and impersonal, not to mention staid.

I’ll say this for The Fear Index – it is never staid. Across four episodes telling the story of Dr. Alex Hoffman, a genius hedge fund billionaire in Geneva who, following an attack in his home, begins to uncover a strange conspiracy against him which leads increasingly back to himself, The Fear Index uses a contained, just over 24 hour time frame to its advantage in throwing Hoffman into a series of increasingly ridiculous situations that stretch credulity.

This isn’t exactly praise but while The Fear Index is not really any good, it is at least never entirely dull.

The sad news is that Paul Greengrass almost adapted this around a decade ago after Harris initially wrote a solo screenplay version of his book.

Coming in the wake of his work on the Bourne trilogy, you can see how well he might have brought Harris’ story here to the big screen. He would likely have unlocked the fast paced intensity of Harris’ novel with his shock in trade neo-realist shaky cam action, delivered a strong cast of talented thespians to help sell what is, on paper, one of Harris’ more ludicrous and out there stories, and use the platform to expose many of the ideas Harris is playing with her – namely the unchecked power of billionaires and hedge funds trading on human futures.

What we’ve ended up with, honestly, are diminishing returns.

The Fear Index was produced by Sky Studios which doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record as a powerhouse of well-produced television, nor does it change that perception here. Josh Hartnett is drafted in as Hoffman and while not quite the Hollywood star he once was, he remains a solid leading man who veers between cinema and television, but his performance here must rank as amongst his worst. This is William Shatner on a bad day levels of ham, with Hartnett spending the majority of the series wild eyed, sweating and chewing on naff dialogue.

Unfortunately, Hartnett is not supported by talented fellow thesps who can carry any of the absurdity he is forced to bear. Arsher Ali’s trader Hugo is so pantomime ghastly in how horrendously he portrays naked late-stage capitalist fervour, all you spend the entire series doing is hoping he gets punched in the face. Leila Farzad meanwhile gets fairly scant pickings as Hoffman’s wife Gaby, as we’re meant to wonder if she’s actually a bit sinister herself or supportive of his increasing psychological breakdown. French actor Gregory Montel is fun as a Columbo-esque Swiss detective trying to figure but he too has little to work with.

The melodramatic scripting and heightened performances might be forgivable if The Fear Index felt in any way thrilling or enigmatic but the series entirely falls down in this regard too. Now, it’s fair to say, while I read and enjoyed the book, that was many years ago and only the slimmest of recollections are in my memory about plot or story details, so I didn’t approach this series with a checklist of aspects the show did right or wrong. I had no preconceived points I wanted to see. Despite this, little worked for me in terms of dramatic or excitement, even when the plot is working full throttle.

Perhaps the biggest absurdity is how The Fear Index treats the central word in the title with a literal visual intention.

Hoffman, in a shareholder meeting, describes the modus operandi of the VIXAL-4 algorithm he has devised as being to exploit human ‘fear’ of the future and of globalised systems, thereby allowing his company to make fortunes betting on probabilities with high accuracy. One moment, in which a plane crash VIXAL-4 seemed to predict helps the company make billions and threatens a government investigation, reminded me of Le Chiffre’s antics in Casino Royale; a shame there is no 007 in the world of this series to help out.

The Fear Index channels such fear of probability visually into trying to present Hoffman’s breakdown and the conspiracy around it as more than a thriller, if anything a horror movie slasher. The first episode especially is full of darkened houses, jump scares, and even a freaky old guy staring through windows (who Hoffman becomes convinced is the spectre of a man drawn in a 19th century tome on economics). Credit perhaps for trying to do something innovative with what might have seemed a dry concept, but it just feels incongruous and ridiculous when lined up against the corporate nature of the storytelling and the point of the whole story.

Which, ultimately, is to not trust billionaires and hedge funds, and especially algorithms, because none of them might have our best interests at heart. Thank goodness for The Fear Index as I’m sure many of you were on the fence about all of those things. In the end, there is little to turn up for in this Robert Harris adaptation. Four episodes turns out to be too many, as the story could have been told in two, and Josh Hartnett has quite possibly never been as bad in a main role across his entire career. He is at best miscast, at worst just plain misjudges the whole thing. He fails to drag the entire project over the line.

Skip The Fear Index. If you want a good Robert Harris TV adaptation, seek out the Daniel Craig-starring take on Archangel instead. And let’s hope one day Paul Greengrass actually does have a better run at The Fear Index.

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